Friday, April 16, 2021

Book Review: The Last Night in London

By Jami Denison

Stories that weave a protagonist in World War II Europe with a modern-day heroine have become so popular that authors not known for this genre are jumping on the train. Southern fiction writer Karen White (I reviewed The Night The Lights Went Out in 2017 and Dreams of Falling in 2018. Links are to reviews.) is the latest to dip her toe into these popular waters, taking one of her Southern characters and sending her into an exploration of the past. While the tone of The Last Night in London is a tad uneven, the book is a winner, in some places as moving and heartfelt as Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Georgia native Maddie Warner (a character from White’s Falling Home series) avoids her hometown and the pain of losing her grandmother and mother to breast cancer through her work as a globetrotting freelance journalist. When she discovers a distant relative, Precious DuBose, lives in London and worked for the French Resistance during World War II as a model, she proposes an article about fashion during the war. The project reunites her with her college friend Arabella and with Precious’s surrogate nephew, Colin, whom she rejected in college. But as Maddie gets closer to Precious, she starts to question her own attitude toward life. Does her history really mean she needs to hold people at arm’s length? 

The book alternates between Maddie’s first-person point-of-view in 2019, and the third-person point-of-view of Precious’s best friend and fellow model, Eva, in 1939 London. As the drums of war beat louder, Eva meets aristocratic Graham St. James, whose wealthy family would never approve of a laundry maid’s daughter like Eva. So she changes her name, reinvents her past, and she and Graham fall deeply in love, which strengthens her friendships with Precious and with Graham’s sister Sophia (Colin’s grandmother, deceased in the present-day timeline). But the wrong person discovers Eva’s lies, jeopardizing everything.

I loved The Last Night in London, even though I predicted every plot twist and revelation. Eva is an atypical World War II heroine—she has faults and weaknesses; she isn’t noble. But her drive to better her life and better herself is admirable, and she’s a very likeable character. Most WWII heroines are so brave and their missions so dangerous, I can’t identify with them. Eva is very human. 

My only quibble is that the tone was a little uneven. The novel literally and figuratively starts with a bang—a prologue in which a woman during the Blitz tries to get a baby to safety. In the first two chapters, we meet Maddie, Arabella, and Colin, and I felt like I was dropped in the middle of a rom com. I love rom coms, but after that hugely tense and emotional prologue, the banter in the first two chapters didn’t sit well with me. As I got deeper into the story, though, Maddie became less of a romcom heroine cliché, and the dialogue became more meaningful as well. Usually the present-day heroine can’t compete with the World War II protagonist in novels with this structure, but with Maddie actively investigating Precious and Eva’s past, the link between them was significant, and both protagonists were worth rooting for.  

While The Last Night in London is a good addition to the TBR pile of readers in this genre, fans of Atonement, Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins definitely shouldn’t miss it. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Karen White:

No comments: